Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Aunt Lydia haunts the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale like Margaret Atwood’s version of a vintage Stephen King boogeyman. The grand doyenne of Gilead’s Red Center, where fertile women enter as individuals and exit as Handmaids, Lydia lurks in the recesses of Offred’s mind, coming to the fore whenever her thoughts drift back to her enforced re-education and the lessons that were (sometimes literally) beaten into her. Standing in front of her closet in the summer heat regarding her Handmaid uniform, Offred hears Lydia’s voice echoing in her head: “No worry about sunburn, though!” Or kneeling down at night to pray, she can almost feel the light but pointed blows that the Aunt used to bestow upon her flock, ensuring they assumed the most proper of prayer positions. The only time that she glimpses a corporeal Lydia is at a Salvaging execution toward the end of the book where Offred appears to her former teacher as just another Handmaid in a sea of red.
Four episodes into Hulu’s telling of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the major story changes that the writers have made so far is making their Aunt Lydia (played by Ann Dowd) a regular presence in her pupils’ lives even after they depart the Red Center. She appeared in the second episode, interrogating Offred (Elisabeth Moss) about her former shopping partner, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), and confronted that “gender traitor” in Episode 3, telling Ofglen in stark, chilling terms what the state has done to her in the name of “redemption.”
In both cases, the Handmaids view the Aunt as a threatening figure, but Dowd insists that Lydia cares deeply for “her girls,” as she calls them. “I think she’s emotionally engaged with them,” she tells Yahoo TV. “She wants these girls to succeed.” Lydia is so eager to see her Handmaids thrive, she’s even able to find a way of explaining how something as horrifying as genital mutilation is actually a blessing. “She has to remind herself at all times, ‘What is the larger picture here,'” Dowd says of Lydia’s speech to Ofglen in Episode 3. “The larger picture is this girl’s going to be punished [because] she’s gay, and that’s wrong on a number of levels. But she could possibly have a child, and she’s a valuable member of the community because of that. So her approach is, ‘Let’s make your life simpler. Let’s make your life clean. You’re not going to be plagued by desire and go off the rails again. You can’t see it now, but this is going to be helpful to you.’ In her former life, Lydia was probably a teacher at a girls’ school and saw the values that were being destroyed. This is my own theory — it’s not in the script by the writers.”
Dowd has personal experience with the kind of teacher she imagines Lydia to be. Growing up, the Massachusetts-born actress attended a Catholic school, where her rebellious ways attracted the attention of one very attentive nun. “I was not an easy kid,” Dowd remembers, making sure to point out that her school was nowhere near as draconian in terms of its rules or punishments as Gilead. “I didn’t go with the rules and didn’t think authority was worth a whole lot. And this nun was determined to teach me; she would come and find me at basketball practice and would tell me ‘Come right now.’ I hated her! But she turned things around for me. She never let up until I got the drill: ‘You are not different from anyone else. You have a job, and you will do it to the best of your ability. And until you get that, I will be on your case.’ I think Lydia feels the same thing.”
Lydia’s skills as an instructor are on full display in the show’s fourth episode, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.” In a flashback to the Red Center, Offred and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) are taught, for the first time, just what is expected of the Handmaids when they enter a Commander’s home. Mingling biblical verses with self-empowerment speak, Lydia outlines the breeding ceremony her students will submit to in uplifting terms that, as we’ve already seen, contrast sharply with the ugly reality. It’s a cross between a sermon and a sex education class. Asked about her approach to that scene, Dowd responds with her own question: “Do you have kids? Have you had the conversation about sex? Well, wait until you do that, because it’s so mortifying to explain to your kid about how it actually happens. When I explained it to my daughter, she literally looked at me like, ‘Shut up. This is not something anyone would do voluntarily. It can’t be. It’s just too odd.’ They’re at the age when they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, what did you just say?'”
Just as in that real-life conversation, Dowd says that she played Lydia’s Gileadean sex ed lecture with a “just the facts, ma’am” approach. “She knows this isn’t going to be an easy lesson, so she tells them, ‘I’m going to give you the facts, because you got to get clear on what you’re going to be expected to do. I don’t want there to be any questions.'” But of course she is questioned — specifically by Moira, who raises her hand to challenge Lydia with some of the same incredulity that Dowd heard from her daughter. Rather than eject the rebel from class, Lydia decides to make this encounter a teachable moment, emphasizing to the room that this bizarre ceremony is the new normal. “She’s aware that it’s not going to be the easiest thing they’ve ever done. She’s not stupid, you know? But she’s going to put it in the best light possible with examples that come straight out of the Bible,” Dowd says. “She’s got to take a deep breath and do her job, which is to make these things clear to these girls.”
While Lydia’s explanation normalizes the breeding ceremony for some, it also becomes the impetus for Moira to execute her escape plan, one that — in another departure from the book — involves Offred as her accomplice. After taking another Aunt prisoner and assuming her habit, the two friends depart the Red Center and walk swiftly to an underground railroad station, hoping to board a train that will deliver them to Boston… and freedom. In the end, though, only Moira makes it through the sliding doors, as Offred is detained by a suspicious guard and sent back to her captors, who have her punishment prepared: multiple lashes to her bare feet. Once again, though, Lydia approaches this abuse from a place of extreme affection for her charges. “I do think there’s a fair amount of anger from her,” Dowd explains. “It’s like, ‘Come on, you’re smarter than this!’ But I think she cares tremendously for these girls and is convinced that if they cannot step up, if they do not understand the world they now live in, they’re not going to survive, plain and simple.”‘
The fictional teacher that Dowd likens Lydia to is Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the conflicted nun at the center of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt. But in a perverse way, Dowd’s version of Lydia almost brings to mind Miss Clavel from the Madeline books, a stern, but capable instructor gifted at keeping her students in two straight lines. In that reading, Offred emerges as Madeline, the girl who Miss Clavel has to be extra attentive to. “What’s unnerving about the way Offred is being played — wonderfully — by Elisabeth Moss is that Lydia can’t quite read her,” Dowd says, suggesting that, in this version of The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred haunts Lydia rather than the other way around. “She will do as she’s told, and her words and deeds are correct. But her thoughts unnerve Lydia to a degree that she can’t show. Offred is a survivor and she knows what she has to do and carries that somewhere in her that Lydia can’t penetrate. And that’s always scary to a woman in charge.”
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.